Identity, ambiguities and uncertainties: Continuing reflections after Paris, Beirut and Iraq attacks

Today’s post continues our series of reflections on the attacks in Paris, Beirut and Iraq. Joram Tarusarira responds to Erin Wilson’s call to accept ambiguities, posing a few problems and questions with this approach.

In the wake of the attacks in Paris, Beirut and Iraq which saw many people losing their lives, an avalanche of information has filled the public domain in an attempt to answer a barrage of ensuing questions. Scholars, practitioners and lay people have offered various interpretations to similar as well as different questions. Some have been interested in why the perpetrators of these events did it and others have focused on the responses. In this reflection I focus on two elements: firstly, the implications the attacks have had or might have on the people of good will who happen to share the Islamic identity with the attackers and secondly I follow up on Erin Wilson’s recommendation of accepting ambiguities and being content with uncertainties.

Two elephants fighting. Source: Benh LIEU SONG from Torcy, France, via Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons License 2.0
Two elephants fighting. Source: Benh LIEU SONG from Torcy, France, via Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons License 2.0

I want for a moment to focus on the grass that suffers when two elephants fight. By this I mean the good living and innocent people who happen to be born into the Islamic religion or who convert to Islam but have nothing to do with the attacks. Elizabeth Shakman Hurd lamented the intention by some presidential aspirants in the United States to subject Syrian refugees to a religious test and of late, the proposal that all Muslims be banned from entering the United States. She asserts ‘the Syrian people cannot be reduced to their status as believers or non-believers. . .” This reductionism by politicians speaks to issues of identity that should also be problematized in our effort to interrogate ISIS and the Muslim/Islamic conundrum. The identity dimension does not get adequate attention despite the consequences it has on Muslims of good will who get discriminated in the process by being lumped together with the attackers because they share the Islamic identity with them. The danger is that compartmentalizing them into the camp of ISIS or potential ISIS agents may actually force them to attach themselves to the radical extremists as they seek to satisfy the natural desire to belong. This worsens rather than lessens the problem of ISIS.

Blaming Islam as a religion or Syrians in general is a singular approach to identity[i] that denies that human beings have multiple identities to which they belong simultaneously. It also overlooks that it is possible to live with numerous identities and emphasize different ones depending on the occasion. This is one of the problems with the sentiments expressed in the media pointed out by Erin Wilson: that refugees (not even some refugees) from Syria maybe ISIS agents intent on carrying out attacks. To impose a singular identity is to vivisect and compartmentalize the people fleeing the violence in Syria. Categorizing individuals fleeing conflict risks imposing on them rigid ascribed identities. This approach assumes that an individual will always act based on that identity and does not consider the influence of other identities he or she may have. It also neglects that identity is fluid; it shifts depending on context and situations. In the case of the refugees, while the fear is understandable, innocent refugees suffer as a result of real or perceived ‘bad eggs’, the radical extremists who executed the attacks in question.

Singular identities are often ascribed to large groups or communities, for instance Muslims, Europeans, Americans, Africans. The group is presented as homogenous. The aggressions and violence or the peacefulness of the group is the common responsibility of the whole group; hence every member of the group is treated on the basis of the group.[ii] This is a communitarian approach understood as taking community identity to be peerless and paramount in a deterministic way, as if by nature, without any need for human volition.[iii] It presumes, for instance, that when one has an Islamic identity, he or she will always act as and as if instructed by Islam. The possibility that individuals possess multiple identities of which being Islamic is just one of many is overlooked. Assuming that individuals act on the basis of the communities to which they belong or from which their identity is abstracted is a direct affront to individual agency, freedom and use of reason to act in a way one deems fit. It is reductionist and can lead to marginalization and violence.

A singular identity approach can serve an ideological function which justifies the status quo and has the negative consequence of blocking reaching out to the other person. Thus singular identity mechanisms also hinder understanding and multiculturalism, acceptance and integration. This is the difficulty with functional definitions of religion. They are external and overlook the basic idea that any human meaning must, first of all, be understood in its own terms, “from within,” in the sense of those who adhere to it.[iv] As long as we are not in the minds of the attackers, we will have difficulties figuring out what is happening and why it is happening. We have to keep our ideological interests in check lest they divert us from seeking understanding and push us towards justification of our intended actions. At the very least, we need to balance ideologically inclined interpretations with the basic belief in the goodness of humanity.

Wilson brought to our attention that sometimes our epistemic desire is beyond satisfaction, not because we do not have the interest to seek answers but simply because the situations are just beyond our comprehension. As long as we are not in the mind of the attackers, we can only propose hypotheses in an effort to get as close to the truth of what happened or what is happening. Tragic events are full of ambiguities and Wilson suggests that sometimes the best way to deal with such complex matters is to accept the ambiguities and be content with uncertainties. While the proposal is attractive, it needs to factor in that human beings have an epistemic desire to experience the world as organized, predictable and controllable.[v] They are constantly looking for answers to questions about the meaning of life cognitively, emotionally and morally. Accepting ambiguities and being content with uncertainties can be quite demanding especially in situations that are life-threatening.

When there is no threat to life, doubt is suspended and people can live with ambiguities and be content with uncertainties. Doubt gets activated when events such as the tragic attacks in Paris, Beirut and Iraq present themselves. People raise questions and seek answers and meaning; they seek to find out what happened and do not easily accept ambiguities and be content with uncertainties. Continuing with business as usual offers no way of ensuring how to prevent reoccurrence of such tragedies. Accepting ambiguities and being content with uncertainties runs the risk of negating agency and encouraging inaction. In dealing with the past, truth-searching is seen as one of the key dynamics of healing and reconciliation, because knowing what happened gives closure and allows for forgiveness. No wonder lack of answers on the how, why, where and when of someone’s death is a wound in itself which will not heal in the face of ambiguities and uncertainties. This has been evident with the relatives of the passengers aboard Malaysian Airlines MH370 plane. They wanted to know what caused the plane to disappear. Even when they were told that the debris that had been discovered was indeed from the missing they were still not satisfied. Lee Khim Fatt, whose wife, Foong Wai Yueng was a flight attendant on board the aircraft still demanded to know more: ‘There are still so many questions left unanswered, so many holes in the puzzle’.[vi]

Settling with grey areas after events such as terrorist attacks potentially leaves humanity in danger. Issues of security cannot be left to ambiguity and uncertainty. This is not to suggest that all issues of security are based on certainty, otherwise the attacks in question would not have occurred. However precision and exactitude are part and parcel of security standard procedures. Neither is it to suggest that whenever certainty is pursued it will be achieved. I agree that we should bracket out claims of arriving at the absolute truth. However the search for certainty should be the guiding principle towards understanding activities that involve human agency such as terror attacks.

Clarity and wisdom should be the agenda and this agenda is about understanding and it stands in opposition to accepting ambiguities and being content with uncertainties. This is in no way denying that the themes at play are dynamic, complex and are in constant change, thereby making the only certain thing uncertainty. It is difficult to get the exact truth of the questions that emerge when such events happen. However I would propose that we try to tackle the complexities of the situations, deploy as many theoretical and conceptual tools as we can. I recommend a multidimensional response to the attacks, ranging from hard power to soft power as well as a mixture of the two, smart power to create optimal strategies in particular contexts.[vii] Only then will we be able to develop effective conceptual and theoretical tools as well as effective practical responses to the terrorist evils that threaten peace and security across the world. ISIS should not have the feeling that it has confused us to the extent of accepting that we do not understand it or we will never understand it. This will give it more strength when what we require at this point is to undermine its power and influence.

Joram Tarusarira is Assistant Professor in Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding and Deputy Director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, Faculty Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen

[i] A. Amartya. 2006. Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. Penguin: London

[ii] K. Korostelina. 2011. Promoting Culture of Peace through History Education, in Forming a Culture of Peace: Reframing Narratives of Intergroup Relations, Equity, and Justice, edited by Karina Korostelina. Palgrave Macmillan: London, p. 101.

[iii] Sen, op.cit.,4

[iv] P.L. Berger. 1974. “Some Second Thoughts on Substantive versus Functional Definitions of Religion.”Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 13(2), p.125.

[v] D. Bar-Tal.2000. Shared beliefs in society: Social psychological analysis. Sage Publications: London.

[vi] R. Middleton, Missing Malaysia Airlines MH370: Relatives of passengers demand more answers, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/missing-malaysia-airlines-mh370-relatives-passengers-demand-more-answers-1514295

[vii] See J. Nye. 2004. ‘Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics‘ New York: Public Affairs.

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